CROYDON — Police Chief Richard Lee said he was forced to leave Town Hall in his underwear Tuesday after the board of selectmen voted to dissolve the town’s one-man police department.
“I was told that I had to turn over the keys to the cruiser and my uniform immediately. I had no other means of transportation, as the cruiser is a take-home vehicle, and I have no spare clothes in the office, so I did as ordered,” Lee said Wednesday.
Lee said he started walking toward his home in Newport during a snowstorm wearing boots, a hat and his underwear, before his wife picked him up.
“Someone called my wife... but I probably made it about three quarters of a mile before she got there,” he said.
Lee said he complied with the board’s requests for everything except access to evidence and other police records.
Lee, who was employed by the town of 700 for about 20 years, was its prosecutor as well as its only police officer. It is unclear whether criminal cases can be followed through in his absence.
Select board chair Russell Edwards said Tuesday’s decision to eliminate the police department was an economic one.
“We didn’t feel we were getting the value for our money,” Edwards said.
At last year’s Town Meeting, the board of selectmen put a surprise warrant article on the ballot to eliminate the police department and sign a $55,000 a year contract with the Newport police department. At the time, Lee’s department was estimated to cost the town about $40,000 a year.
Selectmen Gary Quimby and Reagan Clarke resigned in the ensuing public outcry, leaving Joe Marko to appoint Ian Underwood in an emergency meeting. The two later appointed Edwards.
Voters forced the board to hold a Special Town Meeting in May, at which the decision to dissolve the department was reversed by a 121-to-51 vote.
Edwards said the town is paying closer to $50,000 when fuel and telephone costs are included. Lee works a part-time, 32-hour a week schedule, and state troopers already patrol the town when Lee is off duty, he said. The town now will rely on the state police.
Lee will receive a month’s severance pay.
Edwards said this week’s move was not in conflict with the May Special Town Meeting vote, because that vote related to rejecting a contract with Newport, not about keeping the Croydon department. Told that sentiment at the May meeting was running as much in Lee’s favor as against the Newport contract, Edwards said he is new to town and wasn’t paying attention to the issue last year.
“I don’t recall enough about it,” Edwards said.
Lee and board members have been at odds for years. Before last year’s town meeting vote, Quimby and the board hired an outside firm to investigate the department. The current board has refused to make the completed report public.
Last year, Lee complained about the new police radio the board bought for his cruiser, saying the unit was weak and did not work. Lee said he was in danger without a functioning radio. Pressured by residents, the board eventually bought a more powerful unit.
Recently, board members have refused to formally appoint Lee to the position of police chief, as previously had been done annually.
Heather and Rick Sampson, who have been showing up at most of the selectmen’s meetings since the trouble between Lee and the board began last year, said Lee isn’t exempt from criticism of his job performance, but he did not deserve this kind of treatment.
“Richard’s not perfect, no human being is,” Heather Sampson said.
Her husband said the incident reflects poorly on the character of selectmen and the town.
“What kind of a town lets their chief of police walk out in a snowstorm in his underwear?” Rick Sampson said.